Two-and-a-half-year-old Javier has been hearing Spanish since he was in the womb. “I wanted him to know a second language, so I spoke only Spanish to him, even when he was in my wife’s belly,” says Oskar Varela, Javier’s Chilean-Canadian dad. Varela’s wife, Tanya Da Silva, who is of Portuguese heritage, is responsible for Javier’s English-language acquisition. She has also taken Spanish classes, so she can keep up with the conversations happening in their Kingston, Ont., home.
If you or your family are lucky enough to be bilingual already, it’s beneficial to teach both languages at the same time. Many of your friends may be jealous, as more parents seek out early second-language instruction and bilingual caregivers for their kids.
“Families today want to maintain their heritage languages, and there’s definitely increased interest in introducing non-native secondary languages as well,” says Janet Werker, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Study after study shows that in households where two or more languages are spoken, children thrive and grow up fluent in both.” Early childhood is a very good time to acquire a second language, due to brain plasticity.
“The sheer number of words a child hears per day is one of the best predictors of his success in learning any language,” says Krista Byers-Heinlein, an assistant professor of psychology and the director of the Infant Research Lab at Concordia University in Montreal. “If a parent’s goal is for his or her child to learn a new language from a caregiver, it’s best to find somebody who’s chatty.”
Speech delays are a myth
There are no major differences with language-related developmental milestones for bilingual kids, says Werker. Their total vocabulary will be comparable, but it may be split, initially, across both languages. For example, your monolingual three-year-old may know 500 or more words in his or her mother tongue, whereas a Spanish-English bilingual child may know 250 English words and 250 Spanish words. Using a mix of two languages within the same sentence is also completely normal.
Tamara Bayly’s daughter spoke only English until she was 20 months old, when she started at a Montessori preschool in Unionville, Ont., that includes at least one hour a day of Mandarin instruction. “When Genevieve started Mandarin, her linguistic abilities grew by leaps and bounds,” says Bayly. “She went from being very hard to understand to using full sentences. She switches languages within a sentence, too – she’ll say, ‘I want xīguā’ – watermelon – but we’re the only ones who are confused.” Now four, Genevieve writes characters and recites nursery rhymes in Mandarin, has good oral expression and matches Mandarin words with pictures. Bayly intends for her daughter to eventually master French as well.
Learning a new language takes consistency and exposure, and works best when it’s heard in a variety of environments, says Byers-Heinlein. A few hours a week isn’t enough, and TV isn’t particularly effective. Reading, and interactive or social activity (like meet-ups with other kids who speak the language) are best.
Varela insists that anyone who can speak another language with his son does so. This includes Javier’s Chilean grandmother, who reads books to him in Spanish over Skype, and his Canadian grandma, who has been asked to speak her native Portuguese. “I’m relentless,” says Varela. And I know that in 20 or 30 years, Javier’s going to thank me for it.”
A version of this article was published in our October 2013 issue with the headline “Double speak” p. 76.